Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 17, 2017

Psalm 114 Commentary

Psalm 114 has been called the most exquisitely crafted of all the Psalms because of its four perfectly matched two line stanzas, its smoothly flowing parallelism, its use of personification, and its mounting suspense.  All of this literary beauty combines to highlight the central theme of the whole Old Testament, if not the entire Bible.

This is the second of the six Psalms in a collection often called the Egyptian Hallel (Psalm 113-118), so called because each one begins with Hallelujah (except Psalm 114, unless Psalm 113:9 is really the introduction to Psalm 114) and because each one is related in some way to Israel’s deliverance from bondage in Egypt.  That is obviously the case with Psalm 114 (cf. verse 1).  It is a Psalm of praise without the usual invitation to praise (but remember what I just said about Psalm 113:9).  Psalm 114 focuses on the reason for praise by eloquently summarizing Israel’s redemption story.

We know that the Egyptian Hallel was sung at the three great Jewish pilgrimage festivals.  For example, at the Passover Psalms 113-114 were read before the meal and Psalms 115-118 were sung afterward.  In other words, these were almost surely the words Jesus and his disciples sang that last night when he gave them the Lord’s Supper as a perpetual reminder of his life and death.  Accordingly, these six Psalms reminded Israel of how they came to be a people.

Imagine families with little children and aged grandparents gathered in worship.  Psalm 114 is read as the powerful story behind the greatest wonder of Israel’s existence.  They had become “God’s sanctuary” in the world, the place from which God ruled the world, his “dominion.”  In these few words, we are reminded of the heart of Old and New Testament religion—the God of the Universe is once again present in the world in the nation of Israel and, then, in the Israelite named Jesus of Nazareth.

Psalm 114 explains how that wonder happened by retelling the story of the Exodus.  That was the means to the end.  Note the wording of verses 1 and 2. “When Israel came out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of a foreign tongue, Judah became God’s sanctuary, Israel his dominion.”  It’s a matter of “when, then.”  In two verses we move from Egypt to the Promised Land, from God’s supposed absence to God’s obvious presence.

Behind that story, of course, lies the older story of God’s exile of humanity from his presence in the Garden, the wandering of the Patriarchs with no permanent place to live, God’s repeated promise that he will be their God and give them a land to call home, and then Israel’s 430 year captivity in the God-forsaken land of those foreigners.  Psalm 114 reminds Israel of how they had become the sanctuary and dominion of the God who had been so absent for so long.

God way of accomplishing that miracle was so wonderful that the forces of nature, the foundations of the created order reacted in astonishing ways.  “The sea looked and fled, the Jordan turned back; the mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs.” On the surface, those words are a reference to the parting of the Red Sea after the flight from Egypt, the stopping of the Jordan before the entrance to the Promise Land and probably to the shaking of Mt. Sinai when Yahweh gave his law to Moses and Israel.

But on a deeper level, verses 3 and 4 might also be one of those frequent Old Testament references to the primeval waters that represent chaos and evil.  And the shaking of the mountains might be a reference to the foundations of the earth. When Yahweh delivered his people, the whole order of nature was shaken, even reversed.  The humbled God is exalted and the exalted elements are humbled.  This pictures the Exodus as a cosmic inversion.  Water is removed from its place and then water is given where it had no place (cf. verse 8).  The mountains that stand so tall and on which the mighty gods were worshiped in ancient cultures have been reduced to gamboling domestic animals.

How could that happen?  Why did that happen?   In questions that some scholars hear as a taunt over a defeated enemy, the Psalmist questions the elements over their behavior.  Since God hasn’t been mentioned in the Psalm yet (the “God” of verse 2 is really the pronoun “his” in the Hebrew), these questions serve to heighten the suspense in the Psalm and in the worship where the Psalm would be recited.   We’ve just witnessed a miracle in the Exodus.  We’re part of an earthshaking wonder.  How on earth did this happen?  Why did the sea part and the Jordan stop flowing and the mountain quake and the entire creation tremble?  Or perhaps a better question is, who did this?

That’s where verse 7 takes us.  “Tremble, O earth….”  That word suggests both fear and joy, twisting and turning in a dance and writhing in pain and agony.  The earth should rejoice and fear that the Presence has returned to the earth.  The Lord has always been here; he is, after all, the Maker of heaven and earth.  But because of sin, the Lord has not been present as he was in the Garden and as he promised to be when he entered into covenant with the Patriarchs.  Now the Presence of the Lord has returned to the earth, establishing a new sanctuary and dominion in the little nation of Israel which he has created and formed at the Red Sea, the Jordan River, and Mount Sinai.

There is no way of exaggerating the centrality of Presence in the Bible, or in our God-forsaken world.  From the original Garden sanctuary where God walked and talked with his people to the New Heaven and New Earth where “the dwelling of God is with humanity and he will live with them,” the Bible is all about God’s plan to be with his people.  That’s what he intended in creation and that’s what he will accomplish in redemption.

In between those happy poles of history, there has been much unhappiness, as Adam and Eve are send out from the presence of the Lord to wander in the world.  But as they wander God promises that he will once again be with them.  When it seems that he is not with them, they panic.  Think of Moses’ conversation with an angry God after the episode of the Golden Calf.  When Moses talks God out of destroying Israel, God says, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest (Exodus 33:19).”  And Moses says, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here,” because that will spell destruction for us.

Now here in Psalm 114 Israel is reminded of the happy penultimate fulfillment of those promises.  God’s Presence is back.  He entered the Temple and dwells in the Holy of Holies.  Israel is now his Kingdom on earth, a holy nation and a royal priesthood, from which God will extend his dominion over all the earth.

But Israel was not holy, not faithful, not a royal priesthood, so God withdrew his Presence from them (cf. the chilling scenes in Ezekiel) and sent them into Exile.  It’s possible that Psalm 114 was written in Exile or just after.  Its intent was to remind Israel of the history that had made them who they were and to invite them to not only praise God for the wonders he had done, but also tremble in his renewed Presence.

Today Psalm 114 calls us to rejoice and tremble in the Presence of God in Jesus Christ.  Think of all the allusions to the Presence in the story of Jesus.  Was it accidental that the angel told a worried Joseph that “his” son would be called “Immanuel, that is, God with us?”  Was John just spilling words when he said that the Word who was God and became flesh actually “dwelt among us?”  All preachers know that the Greek word in John 1:14 is “tabernacled,” which is almost certainly a reference to God’s Presence in the Tabernacle/Temple.

Isn’t it interesting that the 12 year old Jesus went to the Temple where he said he had to be “about his Father’s business?”  What business?   The very thing the Temple symbolized, namely being present with his people.  And was it accidental that the essence of Jesus message was “The Kingdom of God is at hand…?”  He had come not only to be the Presence of God, but also to reestablish God’s Kingdom on earth.  Among his last words were these: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

How about Jesus’ claim that if the Temple of his body was destroyed, he would rebuild it in three days.  And isn’t it telling that the crucial word from the cross was a cry that summarized the human problem.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I could go on and on with all the biblical references to God’s Presence.  It is clear that the narrative problem of the Bible is the absence of God, and the focus of God’s miraculous solution to the problem was his Presence in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

James Luther Mays, as usual, says it better than I can.  “Psalm 114 tells how the Lord came to be the Holy Presence in the midst of Israel and, at the same time, how the God who is sovereign of the whole world came to have this particular people as his dominion.  It is thus a kind of poetic etiology of the situation assumed by all the Psalms.  The church has read and sung this Psalm in the light of what happened in Judah and Israel through Jesus Christ.  It sees in his death and resurrection yet another and a climactic theophany of the divine rule in which the Presence assumes a new relation to people and place.”

No wonder that the church of Jesus Christ is called “the Temple of the living God (II Cor. 6:16).”  We are now that “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that [we] may declare the praises of him who called…. (I Peter 2:9).”  Such a privilege and responsibility should make us “tremble at the Presence of the Lord….”

Illustration Idea

It should be fairly easy to illustrate how central the absence of God is in human experience.  Serious literature and film are filled with it.  So is history.  My “favorite” example is that horrific scene from Eli Wiesel’s classic account of the Holocaust, Night.  To further subdue the Jewish prisoners in a death camp, the sadistic commandant has a child crucified in the presence of the entire camp.  As they gaze in stunned horror, one agonized voice cries, “Where is God?”  Another voice answers, “Up there!  On that cross!”

He probably meant that God is dead.  The Holocaust proved that to many of its survivors.  But we could apply those same despairing words to the cross of Christ.  Where is God in a suffering world?  Up there, suffering and dying on the cross, crying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

In that moment, the Lord suddenly came to his temple.  The curtain of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom.  The Presence of the Lord, formerly hidden behind that curtain, is now out in the open, on the cross, for all to see.  “Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”


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